Saturday, February 29, 2020

The Reality of Yellowstone's Bison Hunt

One winter day, Mary and I take turns scanning with binoculars along the floor of the Gardiner Basin and to a thin line of conifers that marks Yellowstone National Park's northern border. Just beyond that border is Beattie Gulch in Gallatin National Forest. There, winter-hungry bison that step over the invisible park boundary in search of dried grass not buried under deep snow are shot by hunters. 

But really, hunter is the wrong word. Those people we watch through binoculars in Beattie Gulch—there are at least fifty of them, some in camo, some in bright orange vests—they’re not hunters. They’re shooters. They’re a firing squad. They stand in the open, within sight of their pickup trucks, their guns ready, waiting for bison to unwittingly enter their field of fire.

Looking toward the park, we count twenty-nine bison, walking in a long line toward the firing squad. The animals seem oblivious to danger. But why shouldn’t they be? They spend most of their lives in Yellowstone protected from hunting. We watch and worry as they close in on the firing squad.

Then we hear the first shots, popping sounds at this distance.

We’re shocked to see a bison fall and amazed that the rest of the herd does not flee. Instead, they circle their fallen member, as if wondering what’s wrong. 

Pop! Pop! Another bison down.

Some of the group moves toward the second bison on the ground.

Pop! Pop! Pop! Two more bison fall. Still the rest don’t turn tail.

Within minutes, twenty-one bison lay scattered and still in front of the firing squad. We feel some relief as the eight survivors turn from the slaughter and in a much shorter line escape Beattie Gulch and climb up a draw, heading back towards the park. One limps, perhaps wounded. 

photo by Rick Lamplugh
Mary and I sit silent, sad, and angry. We know that if today’s survivors make it back into the park they could be safe. Or their days could be numbered. Though these eight escaped the firing squad today, the annual winter capture of bison by the National Park Service at the Stephens Creek Capture Facility within Yellowstone is underway.

This controversial hunt outside the park and capture within the park are required by the Interagency Bison Management Plan—the IBMP. That plan was written years ago by a court-ordered coalition of federal and state agencies including the National Park Service, US Forest Service, USDA’s Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service, Montana Department of Livestock, and Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks. Later three Native American groups joined the coalition. Goals of the IBMP include confining bison within Yellowstone and reducing the park’s population from around 5,000 to 3,000 bison.

Each winter the members of the IBMP decide the number of bison that will die. Each winter hundreds are senselessly wasted. Many—like the ones we saw slaughtered--will be killed outside the park by shooters. The bison hunting season lasts about three months. Many other bison—which may include those eight survivors—could be captured and interred at the Stephens Creek facility. From that facility, Native American tribal members will haul the imprisoned bison to slaughter houses in Montana.

Managing Yellowstone’s bison—our national mammal, mind you—with confinement and death is done in the name of protecting cattle from brucellosis. The disease can be transmitted from elk or bison to cattle and cause infected livestock to abort calves and ranchers to lose money. But there has never been a documented case of brucellosis transfer from bison to cattle. Never.

Elk, on the other hand, have transmitted brucellosis to cattle at least twenty-seven times since the year 2000. Twenty-seven times. But elk aren’t confined to the park, aren’t captured and slaughtered like bison. Elk aren’t viewed as livestock, but bison are. Elk are seen as wildlife, as trophies, to be hunted and stuffed. Bison are used as brucellosis scapegoats to be confined and killed.

The IBMP’s bison management evokes protests from locals, Montanans, and people all across the United States. The protests often start in early January, after the hunt begins and before the capture starts.

photo by Rick Lamplugh
As Gardiner residents, Mary and I have been drawn physically, emotionally, and intellectually into this life and death struggle. We can watch through binoculars from our dining room window as the bison walk through the Roosevelt Arch and toward death awaiting a few miles away in Beattie Gulch.

We joined a local conservation group and worked as part of a team of dedicated volunteers to stop the senseless killing. Mary has found news reports and scientific papers detailing the management of bison and elk. I used that information and our field observations to write chapters about the bison slaughter in my last two books. We have attended meetings where those for or against killing bison sometimes shout opposing views at one another. We have joined about fifty others in a Buffalo Field Campaign-organized march down the main road in Gardiner, protesting this inhumane treatment of bison.

But watching those bison fall in Beattie Gulch is not talking, reading, or writing about senseless killing. This is seeing and hearing it. This is feeling the anger and shock and sadness. This is all too real, and no matter how much we dislike it, the controversial killing will not end anytime soon. Neither will the protest against it. 

This commentary based on a chapter from Deep into Yellowstone: A Year's Immersion in Grandeur and Controversy.

Rick Lamplugh writes and photographs to protect wildlife and wild lands.

His bestselling In the Temple of Wolves; its sequel, Deep into Yellowstone; and its prequel, The Wilds of Aging are available signed

His books are also available unsigned or as eBook or audiobook on Amazon.



  1. An oldie but still a goodie, Rick. Thanks!

  2. Rick,
    What happens to the bison that are removed from Yellowstone? Are all of them given to the Native Americans for food? Why aren't the Native Americans being allowed to raise them on their own land?

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  4. Great article & thanks for not only bringing attention to this unnecessary slaughter but for also going out of your way to protest it as well. This kind of thing will only change when more ppl get involved & put pressure on our elected leaders. Even better would be to elect more wildlife friendly politicians in the first place.

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